Will the waters of St. Peter’s Bay remain calm?

The fact that the moderate livelihood fishery in St. Peter’s Bay has been, so far, peaceful and uninterrupted, is very encouraging given recent events.

Last month, hundreds of Mi’kmaq from across the province gathered in celebration with the Sipekne’katik First Nation for the launch of their Mi’kmaq-regulated, rights-based lobster fishery.

Said to be the first of its kind in the province, the distribution of licences and lobster trap tags to seven Mi’kmaq harvesters from Sipekne’katik, took place exactly 21 years after a landmark Supreme Court ruling in the case of Donald Marshall Jr.

On September 17, 1999, the court ruled that Marshall, charged with fishing eels outside of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) regulated season, was justified in doing so — under the 1760s Peace and Friendship Treaties.

Following the 1999 Marshall ruling, Mi’kmaq harvesters across the Atlantic region, who started fishing lobster outside of DFO regulations, were met with fierce opposition, including Burnt Church, New Brunswick.

Twenty-one years later, that same opposition reared its ugly head in southwestern Nova Scotia where up to 50 lobster fishing boats from numerous non-Indigenous fishing communities circled the first Mi’kmaq boats to push off and drop the traps.

Tensions continued to boil over until later that evening when a video surfaced showing emergency flares narrowly missing a Mi’kmaq boat that was fleeing from a dozen fishing vessels.

Chief Terrance Paul, the Assembly’s Fishery Lead, said non-Indigenous fishers and citizens “were putting the safety of our people at risk,” and he called on DFO and the RCMP to address the harassment and illegal activities, including the cutting and stealing of traps.

In response to the violence, the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq Chiefs then declared a State of Emergency for all of mainland Nova Scotia. Under this State of Emergency, an emergency command centre was established in a central, undisclosed location, and representatives of the Mi’kmaq Nation were on the ground to support Mi’kmaq harvesters, their families, and supporters.

The assembly coordinated assistance and support across organizations and service providers to protect the safety and security of Mi’kmaq affected by the unrest.

The Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq Chiefs met with fisheries minister Bernadette Jordan and Carolyn Bennett, Minister Crown-Indigenous Relations, on September 21 to discuss what was happening in Nova Scotia.

The Chiefs made it clear to the ministers and the public that despite what is being incorrectly communicated in some media sources, the moderate livelihood fishery is not illegal.

Chief Paul went to note that Mi’kmaq rights were affirmed in the Canadian Constitution and the right to fish for a moderate livelihood was reaffirmed by the Supreme Court of Canada. While the public may not comprehend a fishery outside the realm of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, he said that does not make their fishery illegal.

Sipekne’katik’s moderate livelihood fishery is the first of what could become multiple Mi’kmaq-regulated fisheries launched throughout the province, including a fishery by Potlotek First Nation which launched with four vessels out of St. Peter’s Bay on October 1.

Potlotek Chief Wilbert Marshall said they are following a community plan, which is similar to Sipekne’katik’s, with a licence and up to 70 tags issued to their harvesters.

It appears the Richmond County Inshore Fishermen’s Association (RCIFA) agreed to set their differences aside to avoid a repeat of the direct conflict between Indigenous and non-Indigenous fisherman on St. Mary’s Bay.

Former RCIFA president Gilbert Boucher said Potlotek is merely “exercising their right,” and since non-indigenous and Indigenous fishermen “live alongside one another,” the consensus of his group is to “keep quiet.” Boucher said as long as conservation measures are adhered to, there will be no problems.

Recently, the RCIFA held a meeting with their members to figure out their position on the issue and to establish a way for them to respond to Potlotek’s moderate livelihood fishery.

In his conversations with the RCIFA, Chief Marshall guaranteed that despite their larger crab boat being on the water, his members are fishing for a moderate livelihood, which only accounts for six or seven families from his community.

He indicated those fishing will use the same style of traps the commercial fishermen use, however, they will be using fewer traps overall.

Boucher told Chief Marshall that their issue is not with Indigenous fishermen, but rather with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, something to which the chief could find common group since he too feels the federal government has been “playing politics” over this issue.

“We want to fish and [commercial] fishermen want to know what will happen so they can make their plans,” Chief Marshall said.

Although the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in the Donald Marshall Jr. case that Mi’kmaq have the right to harvest and sell fish, wildlife, and wild fruit and berries to provide a moderate livelihood, Chief Marshall said there is still no recognized framework for how they can lawfully exercise this right without the fear of harassment, equipment and catch seizures, and prosecution by law enforcement.

To answer these questions, the Mi’kmaq of Nova Scotia are creating a framework that will govern how they can exercise their rights; what it means, what it looks like, and what rules should be put in place, and also exploring how they can provide for their communities and families today, while also ensuring sustainability for tomorrow.

Speaking only for Potlotek, Marshall explained his community has provided a management plan to DFO, something he described as a “living document.”

To date, the fishery continues without incident, unlike the ugliness of recent years in Richmond County when the RCMP investigated reports of property damage and vandalism to vessels participating in the First Nation fishery.

After these unfortunate events, it’s good to see some local fishermen are acknowledging the reality that First Nation fishermen have the legal right to fish, that they are not interfering with this fishery, and that First Nations fishermen are observing conservation measures.

By participating in a limited fishery with a small number of boats, Potlotek is asserting its constitutional rights, and it seems that some local fishermen are meeting them halfway.

Hopefully this situation will remain as is; there will be no incidents, no threats, no violence, no boats sunk, burned or damaged, and no fishermen harassed.

That doesn’t mean there are no dark clouds on the horizon. The RCIFA noted that Boucher’s comments were his own opinions, not necessarily those of the organization; a situation made all the more curious by the fact that Boucher is no longer RCIFA president.

Then there are the unwelcome rumours swirling of native fishermen unable to purchase bait for their traps, as well as claims from some that Potlotek fishermen are setting more traps than they claim and selling their catches illegally.

Despite these discouraging signs, it is impossible to believe that anyone would want what happened in the southwest part of this province to take place in the Strait area.